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  • Writer's pictureDon Walker

Prophets, Prophecy, and Current Events

Let me begin by saying that I believe in the continuation of the gifts of the Holy Spirit listed in First Corinthians 12:8-10, including the gift of prophecy. I also believe that there are those who occupy the office of the prophet in today’s Church (Ephes. 4:11). At the same time, having witnessed a great deal of unscriptural, exaggerated nonsense over the past 45 years I am cautious. There are many self-appointed prophets and many so-called “prophetic” words that never come to pass. I also want to make it clear that I am not interested in “piling on” to those who have been proven to be wrong regarding their prophecies about the presidential election.

On the other hand, I do not believe that we can ignore, rationalize, or offer spiritualized interpretations of those prophecies that were quite clearly false. Some of those who delivered these false prophecies that assured us that President Trump would serve a second term have humbled themselves and acknowledged their error. I applaud this and respect their contrition. Others have not been so forth coming and this I find troubling. It causes both the world and those in the body of Christ who reject the prophetic gift to scoff and deride those of us who do believe in the prophetic.

At this point allow me to present on excerpt from a paper I wrote almost 20 years ago on the nature of New Testament prophecy. (If you are interested in the paper please let me know.) I hope that is helpful to some degree in sorting out the issues:

Prophecy in the New Testament, must be distinguished from prophecy in the Old Testament. Though there is of course a certain relationship between the two, there are also important distinctions. If one fails to recognize these distinctions, his view of prophecy does not coincide with the teaching concerning its use in the New Testament.

Even though prophecy, both Old And New Testament, could very simply be defined as“ The speaking forth the word of the Lord,” the place and function of prophecy is different in the New Testament era.

Prophecy, as we see it in the Old Testament, carried with it a higher degree of authority than what we find in the New. The Old Testament prophets were able to speak and write words that had absolute divine authority. When an Old Testament prophet declared “Thus says the Lord,” the words that followed were the direct word of God Himself and became Scripture for all time (Num. 22:38; Deut. 18:18-20; Jer. 1:9; Ezek 2:7). Furthermore, to disbelieve or disobey the words of a prophet, was tantamount to disbelieving or disobeying God Himself (Deut. 18:19; I Sam. 8:7; I Kings 20:36; II Chron. 25:16; Isa. 30:12-14; Jer. 6:10-11, 16-19).

Wayne Grudem points out: “Therefore we do not find in the Old Testament any instance where the prophecy of someone who is acknowledged to be a true prophet is ‘evaluated’ or ‘sifted’ so that the good might be sorted from the bad, the true from the false. Rather, when Samuel was established as a prophet, ‘the Lord was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground’ (I Sam. 3:19). Because Samuel was a man of God (that is, a prophet), Saul’s servant could say, ‘All that he says comes true’ (I Sam. 9:6).”

As every reader of the Old Testament knows, the penalty for even one false prophecy was quite severe (Deut. 18:20-22; 13:5). What we find is that every prophet was judged or evaluated, but not the “elements of the prophecy.” The question was: “Is he a true prophet?” The question was not: “Which parts of the prophecy are true and which are false?” In other words, there was no mixture between the words of God, and the words of the prophet. It could not contain some of his words and some of God’s – it had to be all God’s, or he was a false prophet.

In the New Testament, the counterparts to the Old Testament prophets were not the New Testament prophets. This is the mistake some people have unfortunately made. The counterparts to the Old Testament prophets were those New Testament apostles, who were the writers of Scripture. (Not all apostles referred to in the New Testament were writers of Scripture.) It is the apostles, not the prophets, who had the authority to write the words of God, which became the New Testament canon (I Cor. 2:13; II Cor. 13:3; Gal. 1:8-9, 11-12; I Thess. 2:13, 4:8, 15; II Peter 3:2). The apostles in establishing their unique authority as God’s spokesmen, never appeal to the title of “prophet,” but instead refer to themselves as “apostles” (Rom.1:1; I Cor. 1:1, 9:1-2; II Cor. 1:1, 11:12-13, 12:11-12; Gal.1:1; Ephes. 1:1; I Peter 1:1; II Peter 1:1, 3:2).

These apostles, who can be distinguished from the others who are referred as apostles in the New Testament, could be designated as “canonical apostles” because they were the writers of the New Testament canon. Could it be that these are the “eminent apostles” Paul refers to (I Cor. 11:5, 12:11)? This phrase in the Greek (huperlian apostolos) conveys the idea of “super apostles.” Philip E. Hughes in his Commentary on the Second Epistle to the Corinthians, says that this could be translated as “extra-super-apostles.” Obviously, there are no such men in that category today. The prophets of the Old Testament and the “canonical apostles” of the New Testament were what can be called “plenipotentiaries.” They spoke with the full authority of the one they represented.

On this matter Wayne Grudem states: “Of course the words prophet and prophecy were sometimes used of the apostles in contexts that emphasized the external spiritual influence (from the Holy Spirit) under which they spoke (Rev. 1:3, 22:7; and Ephes. 2:20, 3:5), but this was not the ordinary terminology used for the apostles, nor do the terms prophet and prophecy in themselves imply divine authority for their speech or writing. [Note: Titus 1:12] Much more commonly, the words prophet and prophecy were used of ordinary Christians who spoke not with absolute divine authority, but simply to report something that God had laid on their hearts or brought to their minds. There are many indications in the New Testament that this ordinary gift of prophecy had authority less than that of the Bible, and even less than that of recognized Bible teaching in the early church.”

It is important to note that the phrase used by the Old Testament prophets, “Thus says the Lord,” is nowhere spoken by any prophet in the New Testament. It is true that Agabus used the phrase “Thus says the Holy Spirit” (Acts 21:11), but as Wayne Grudem explains: “ the same words (Greek- tade legei ) are used by Christian writers just after the time of the New Testament to introduce very general paraphrases or greatly expanded interpretations of what is being reported (see Ignatius, Epistle to the Philadelphians 7:1-2 [about A.D. 108] and Epistle to Barnabas 6:8, 9:2,5 [A.D. 70-100] ). The phrase can apparently mean, “This is generally (or approximately) what the Holy Spirit is saying to us.”

Allow me to point out several instances where prophets and prophecy in the New Testament church did not have authority equivalent to the apostles, or the Scriptures.

1) Paul disobeyed the prophecies telling him not to go to Jerusalem (Acts 21:4). He would have never done this if the prophecies were considered to carry the authority of Scripture.

2) Paul instructed the Thessalonians, “do not despise prophesying, but test everything; hold fast what is good” (I Thess. 5:20-21). If the Thessalonians equated prophecy with the Word of God, which they had received with “joy” (I Thess. 1:6), why would Paul have to tell them not to despise prophecy? In addition, Paul tells them to “test everything,” in connection with his statement regarding prophecy, meaning that prophecy is to be tested. He implies that prophecies can contain some good things, and some things that need to be rejected, when he states that they are to “hold fast what is good.” This could never be said of the Scripture, nor was it said of the authoritative teachings of a New Testament apostle.

3) In Paul’s instructions to the Corinthian church regarding prophets and prophecy, he says that a prophet’s words are to be “judged” (I Cor. 14:29). The Greek word here is diakrino, which conveys the idea of “sifting.” If a prophet’s words are to be viewed as equivalent to the Scriptures, why then are they to be evaluated? [This, by the way, is where the early Christian document known as the Didache is in conflict with the teaching of the New Testament. The Didache says, “Do not test or examine any prophet who is speaking in the Spirit.” (Chapter 11)] In addition, Paul allows one prophet to interrupt another (I Cor. 14:30). If the prophets were speaking God’s very words, equal to Scripture, why would Paul say they could be interrupted? I believe all this shows that prophets and prophecy were not viewed in the New Testament church as being equivalent to the Scripture.

4) Paul claims authority far greater than any prophet in I Corinthians 14:37-38 when he says: “If any one thinks he is a prophet or spiritual, let him recognize that the things which I write to you are the Lord’s commandment. But if any one does not recognize this, he is not to be recognized.” Paul’s teaching, because it was Scripture (II Peter 3:16), judged the prophets in the Corinthian church.

5) The apostles in the New Testament point believers to the Scriptures, not to prophets and prophecy, for authoritative direction (II Tim. 2:15, 3:16; II Peter 1:19-20, 3:16; James 1:21-22).

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